THE overall level of crime in the United States nudged downward slightly last year, resuming a downward drift since the peak crime year of 1981. Crime trend analysts credit the change largely to the shrinking population of youths in the age groups most prone to commit crime.
According to preliminary data from the Justice Department's National Crime Survey, the number of crimes committed in the US last year dropped nearly 3 percent from 1989.
The 1990 decrease comes in the least-serious crimes, however. Murder is not included in the survey. Two-thirds of all crimes against individuals are larcenies without personal contact - that is, relatively minor thefts without the owner present. These crimes, which might include a car radio theft or the stealing of a bicycle from a rack, dropped 6.9 percent last year. The rate for these crimes dropped the year before as well, by 3.3 percent, according to the National Crime Survey.
The only other crime where the change in the rates was statistically significant was in car thefts, both successful and attempted, which rose by 18.3 percent.
The survey showed no statistically significant or conclusive change in any other crime rates, including rape, although staff members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, polling police departments for reported rapes, have found heavy increases.
If the Judiciary Committee findings are correct, then the incidence of rape is rising counter to the trend for other crimes, including most violent crimes. Since 1981, all crime except murder has declined by roughly 16.5 percent. Violent crime has declined roughly 11 percent.
Murder is the one established exception to the improving crime picture. In certain large cities, such as New York, Washington, Los Angeles, and Miami, the murder rate rose during the 1980s. The increase is chiefly associated with the drug trade, especially crack, and has made little direct impact on people who are not in or near drug business.
In international terms, the US remains an unusually violent society.
All crime in the US, and especially violent crime and murder, far outstrips rates in most other countries. According to 1988 figures from Interpol, an international police organization, only Northern Ireland outstripped the US in its murder rate. No other nation with records came close.
Violent crime is four to nine times as frequent in the US as in Europe, according to a 1988 Bureau of Justice Statistics report. Criminologists say reasons for the violence range from American cultural diversity to the frontier tradition to the entrepreneurial ethos, but the US has been a rougher place than most other countries for at least 150 years, notes James Wilson, professor of public policy at the University of California at Los Angeles.
"In Andrew Jackson's day, New York was more dangerous than London," he notes.
The prevalence of guns is widely believed to play some role. A study initiated by the European Parliament in 1988 found that 29 percent of American households own a handgun. The next highest among 14 countries surveyed was 14 percent in Switzerland, where army reservists are required to own guns.
The American crime rate rose dramatically through the 1960s, as the baby boom swelled the ranks of the young and as the police and other forces of social control were discredited by the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and other factors.
Alfred Blumstein, dean of the School of Urban and Public Affairs at Carnegie Mellon University, says that the peak age for committing property crime is from 15 to 19 years. The smallest single age group in the US population, he notes optimistically, is just turning 15.